I was hurrying back from work one afternoon when I saw some kids on the metro pull out a boombox, turn on the jams, and start slowly, gracefully dancing to Drake. The kid right in front of me, close enough for me to reach out and touch, linked his arms behind his back and started twisting and twisting until he had gotten them under his legs, over his head, and back to where he had started. This was just the beginning of increasingly bizarre and strangely beautiful (though physically impossible) dance that this kid and his buddy were doing.
By seeking to see and understand audiences, artists can enter into a relationship of equals with them.And then my train came, my attention was diverted, and my home called too strongly.
When I had paid attention to these kids dancing on the metro, something beautiful was able to happen—they were able to enliven a subway platform full of people who cared about nothing more than getting home. They did this through grotesquerie and fun dance, but even more through feeding off the attention that they were given and using that attention to carelessly remain in the center of the crowd’s focus and nonchalantly astonish everyone.
When my attention was diverted (by the arrival of my train), the kids lost a little bit of that momentum, lost a little bit of the charism that propelled them forward.
Street performers like these ones (even when they are acting on the metro) show us the powerful dynamic between an audience and the art created. We need to pay attention to art for it to exist, and an artist needs to pay attention to an audience to create. Without this interplay of attention, beauty and art can’t be created at all.
Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking has several examples of this interplay. She worked as a street performer (a living statue) for many years and learned well how to read a crowd, read a scene, and read an afternoon for their potential to create art and make beauty. That act of paying attention as an artist to her audience enabled her to make a living as a performer but also to create beauty in ordinary interactions with others.
Palmer’s “thing,” her gimmick, was that she was the statue bride. She had a bouquet of flowers and whenever someone would tip her, large or small, they would get a flower. She describes this as being an act of seeing someone else and letting someone else know that he or she has been seen. By creating that connection with people watching her, Palmer was able to generate beauty, to make a beautiful moment by the act of noticeably paying attention. She could see people and help them realize that they had been seen (which is what we are all looking for in life).
This kind of attention is always necessary if you want to make a living with your art, but since street performers lives on the edge of artistic creation, they have to be even more responsive to the needs of the audience. If street performers ignore their audience, they risk not making enough in tips to cover rent that month. More than a condition of economic success, though, attention to an audience is a form of honoring them. By seeking to see and understand audiences, artists can enter into relationships of equals with them, which innately bears more beauty than a relationship in which one party ignores the other’s needs.
Of course, the dynamic works the other way as well. A performer pays attention to us and thus makes a beautiful moment—think of the street magician who, asking for a volunteer from the audience, picks the kid who is absolutely thrilled and amazed by what he or she sees—but the audience collaborates with the artist to make beauty by paying attention.
Let’s go back to that magician picking a kid from the audience. Through enthusiasm and sheer joy, the kid elevates the magician’s act. Likewise, if we don’t pay attention to street performance, it dies, and the act itself fades and becomes lifeless. The act of paying attention, the art of paying attention, can elevate even a mundane activity into a reflection of the beautiful. (Thicht Nhat Han has written entire books about sitting mindfully, after all.) How much more can attention elevate a show or an act and make what is already a wonderful, unique moment transcendent.
A park in my neighborhood has a weekly drum circle: a couple dozen people gather every Sunday afternoon to make music and indulge in rhythm that they usually restrain through the week. This attracts not only the players but an entire community surrounding the circle. People dance, slack-line, do BMX tricks, or listen—but best are the kids.
Toddlers know how to experience the drum circle because they dive into it (or are terrified of it—both responses are appropriate). Children dancing wholeheartedly to the drums or children whose parents are teaching them to dance to the drums are paying attention to the music in a way that most of us can’t anymore. And since they are paying full attention to the music, they make the whole park a more beautiful place full of wonder.
We adults can pass over beautiful moments more easily and thus develop calloused souls. We can grow in the habit of ignoring beauty more easily than we can cultivate the habit of seeing and appreciating it. Street performers, at their best, can grab us and, by paying attention to us, gauging our mood and proclivities, force us to pay attention to them and to recognize the beauty that they offer us. They can tear off our blindfolds and help us see the world charged, as it truly is, with potential (with, we might even say, the grandeur of God).
By moving past those kids on the metro that night when my train came, I ignored and helped destroy the moment that they were making. I was making a choice that, if continued, could lead to a calloused heart that would find beauty impossible in the best of situations.
At its best, street performance prevents you from becoming numb to beauty because the performers are paying attention to the crowd themselves. The power of street art grabs you when you don’t expect it and forces you to pay attention, which can lead to an appreciation of beauty everywhere.
Image from Picography via Pixabay.